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Open Cnc, Open Sesame?

01 September 2004

Mike Lomax considers open CNC systems and how they can benefit machine builders and end-users

In the competitive industrial marketplace, where technological developments give suppliers a valuable market edge, computer numerical control (CNC) systems have traditionally been vendor-specific solutions.
These are offered as complete packages, where the user or integrator has few possibilities to integrate his own software or hardware extensions, relying instead on the vendor to implement any required modifications or enhancements.

An 'open' or vendor-neutral CNC system, on the other hand, implies a degree of flexibility and choice not offered by traditional closed solutions, by allowing users and integrators to combine components from
different suppliers. The Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) defines an open system as one that 'provides capabilities that enable properly implemented applications to run on a variety of platforms
from multiple vendors, interoperate with other system applications and present a consistent style of interaction with the user'. My own straightforward definition of an open CNC system is one that allows OEMs
or end users to mix and match the best hardware and software components for their particular applications.

To draw some initial conclusions on the benefits and pitfalls of open CNC
and see a way forward in the future, let us first examine an example of a
familiar open system, namely the domestic home PC. If buying a multimedia
PC for a home entertainment system, we can select a basic PC and then
choose from a vast array of graphics cards, TV cards, audio components
and accessories, all of which are plug-and-play compatible. We would not
then think twice about picking the software to use for the DVD, TV and
audio applications, since all comply with basic industry standards.

Most people do not take this route in the selection of a PC, however.
They buy a package form someone they trust to supply a full working
system, then add or remove various peripherals as their requirements
change or technology moves on. The point I am trying to make here is that
having open CNC systems does not mean you will no longer turn to
reputable companies to fulfil your machine needs, but great benefits can
accrue from the 'open' approach.

Sad to say, some of the players in the CNC market still seem to be
against the concept of openness. Recently, I attended a presentation by a
major CNC company, during which they stated that to be a big player in
the market, you must have your own proprietary input/output bus system ,
strongly implying that this allowed them to manipulate the market for
these products. Happily, the end user is becoming aware of the open CNC
technology now available and that market force will stamp out this
attitude, in the not too distant future.

The 'wish list' of many machine manufacturers for the ideal open CNC
controller can be summarised as follows: the ability to combine the best
products from the widest range of manufacturers; the capacity to
introduce their own know-how and the highest performance in speed and
computing capacity.

Mike Lomax is with Bosch Rexroth

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